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Modify, Customize, Raise a Maker

How to help kids explore and love STEAM subjects.

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This story was produced in partnership with the Nickelodeon animated series Rusty Rivets, which encourages kids to use their imaginations and resourcefulness in everyday life.

Rusty Rivets, the animated hero of the Nickelodeon show bearing his name, is a poster child for STEAM learning. A serious tinkerer, Rusty’s solution to everything — codified in his tagline, “Modify, customize, Rustify!” — is to innovate with his hands. This kind of thinking is core to STEAM learning. “Kids have so much fun when they build things. That’s the power of hands-on learning,” says Anna Sergeeva, product manager at Instructables, whose 100 Top STEAM Projects for Educators is something of a must-make list for would-be scientists. “Some MIT students have told us that they first started to love science after trying some of our crafts as little kids.”

While hands-on projects are essential, they are only part of a holistic STEAM learning environment. Here are some building blocks — and some of our favorite experiments and builds — for turning a maker kid into a student of science and technology.

Rusty Rivets

Playing Games with Math

Multiple studies have found that early aptitude in math and spatial abilities is a good predictor of later success in those subjects. Because kids often find those frustratingly difficult, the key is to make the learning process fun. “Often, kids feel anxious when learning STEAM subjects,” says Nora Newcombe, a professor of psychology at Temple University, “but if they practice math and science early on, they’ll face a gentler learning curve down the road.” Her advice: “Introduce them to simple games, even if they’re only 18 months old.”

If your child is preschool age, practice counting exercises with them, using paper tokens or other simple objects so they can visualize the mathematical concepts. After their fifth birthday, try more complex games, such as jigsaw puzzles, origami kits, and Lego models.

Imagination Time, for Scientists

Kids often want to spend time playing make-believe with peers. Rusty himself needs to look no further than his own backyard and pals Ruby and Botosaur for inspiration. That’s great — researchers have linked role-playing games to, among other things, better math skills. But make-believe games should require real-world reasoning.

Newcombe suggests pointing out something that would be “invisible” to a child, and then them asking “what if” questions. “For example, when you’re playing with blocks together, explain how ‘balance’ works, and then ask what will happen if you remove a key block,” she says. (Think that doesn’t sound like a science project? Remember that Einstein was famous for his thought experiments.)

If you’re looking for new “invisible” concepts to explain, just head outside. Emilian Geczi, director of the Natural Start Alliance, suggests asking your kids questions like, “Why do you think birds live in nests?” or, “What will we see if we use a magnifying glass to look at the grass?” while also allowing them to follow their curiosity. “Outdoors, there are so many great opportunities to learn about simple physics, biology, chemistry, math, and a ton of other STEAM-related subjects,” says Geczi.

Science-Based Media

“Computer games that teach programming skills can really boost children’s creativity,” says Catherine Jhee, the director of communications at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. “And, the accessibility of educational videos and articles online can help them explore subjects in-depth and figure out ‘why?’” So take the time to try out a slew of games, learning apps, and STEAM-focused shows like Rusty Rivets — properly curated screen time can help to inspire STEAM-based activities and help your kids figure out which subjects they’re most interested in.

Hands-On Learning

Finally, it’s time to do as Rusty would and start learning through making.“Before kids can learn using traditional methods like worksheets and lectures, they need to already know certain foundational concepts,” says Sergeeva. “The great thing about science projects is that now children can learn through making.” Here are a few projects Serfgeeva recommends to get started. 

Pre-K to Grade 1: Oil and Ice Density Experiment

This project involves making blue ice cubes and dropping them in water and vegetable oil. Great for teaching kids about density — and giving them a future affinity for lava lamps.

Grade 2-5: Soda Can Vibrating Bug

This project involves rigging a tiny toy motor to a soda can using a few wires, nuts, and bolts. When finished, the can will “walk” and hum like an insect. A fun way to teach your children about engineering, electricity, and motors.

Grades 6-8: Balsa Wood Glider

Other than a power drill, all you need to make this model airplane is glue, a few pieces of balsa wood, rubber bands, and spare coins. The directions are complex, so it’s a great project for a would-be engineer who wants to learn about physics and aerodynamics.